The First Stoners?Tom Stavely
Archaeologists in Western China recently (May 2019) discovered some incense burners as an ancient burial ground (Jirzankal cemetery) high in the rural Pamir mountains. These wooden incense burners were used to smoke Cannabis and are now the oldest evidence of humans using the plant. Following our article last month about the origin of the plant itself we now look at how it was first actually smoked and by who and where.
Incredibly scientists have found residue on the incense burners of Cannabis. It is thought that inside the incense burners stones were heated by flames then moved to wooden braziers and then covered with cannabis, this then produced a psychoactive smoke. Why were they doing it? Well it seems as it being a burial ground that it was probably part of a ritual during a funeral and it appears that music was also played as a harp which was often played at ancient funerals and sacrificial ceremonies, was also discovered. Along with the harp and obviously the wooden burners and stones, the archaeologists also excavated plates, bowls, glass beads, silk and human skeletons.
As with our last article on the birth of the plant it comes as no surprise to learn this, also lets remind ourselves this is not the first time ancient Cannabis use has been discovered… But this new discovery shows the deliberate use of the plant for its psychoactive effects. We hear endless stories of the plants incredible uses in societies but early information on using it medicinally or recreationally is hazy (excuse the joke).
Robert Spengler (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History) has said “There has been a longstanding debate over the origins of cannabis smoking, there are many speculative claims of ancient use,” . “This study provides the earliest unambiguous evidence for both elevated chemical production in the plant and also for the burning of the plant as a drug.”
Jirzankal cemetery is situated 3,000m (9,800ft) above sea level in an arid landscape patterned with parallel stretches of black and white stones. Entrances to single tombs at the site (some of which hold various bodies) are marked by mounds surrounded by stone circles. The wooden braziers were found in the more elite tombs, the scientists said. This area of China is very remote today, however the mountainous Pamir region may once have sat astride a busy trade route of the early Silk Road.
Chinese archaeologists perforned tests on ten wooden braziers that were excavated in Jirzankal cemetery. It was thought the Incense burners were used for rituals at the cemetery and that the tests would show this and open up more clues on the plant being inhaled rather than just consumed.
For the tests scientists swabbed material from the burners and 4 charred stones, each piece was analysed following a procedure called “Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry”. This technique detects minuscule traces of chemical residues.
Yimin Yang (University of Chinese Academy of Sciences Beijing) said of the tests… “To our excitement we identified the biomarkers of Cannabis, notably chemicals related to the psychoactive properties of the plant,” “Nearly all the braziers contain the biomarkers of cannabis and one brazier is severely burned, implying that the braziers were being used during funeral rituals, possibly to communicate with nature, or spirits or deceased people,”
Scientists found Cannabinol, which is produced when THC is oxidised. The scientists believe the plants were chosen because of their high THC content, so already at this stage it appears people were paying attention to the difference in the plants strengths.
Origin of Inhalation
We still have very little information on the origins of smoking Cannabis but its clear it was used at the cemetery and this resonates with Herodotus’s written account in the 5th century BC. Herodotus described how people on the Caspian steppe in the mid-first millennium BC sat in tents and burned the Cannabis Plant on hot stones in a bowl. There is other notable evidence on Cannabis smoking in burial grounds further north in China and in the Altai mountains of Russia. If Cannabis smoking originated at this site or nearby, it may have helped to spread Cannabis smoking from Central Asia around the world.
It is unclear whether the plants were cultivated or found in the wild, as we said earlier, they clearly chose certain plants because of their higher THC content, so they knew the strengths but did they deliberately grow them? At the moment we just don’t know, personally I would imagine they did both.
So we mentioned the artifacts found at the site including the skeletons of individuals buried there, well these remains have not been examined in detail, however some of the skeletons have holes in their skulls and what appear to be fatal stab wounds and breaks to their bones… This makes it seem possible that at least some of the dead were sacrificed.
Human sacrifice likely, what can we say about that? It’s not clear at which stage the smoking came into the rituals or was involved in a part where sacrifice was happening, we would think it’s unlikely they smoked then performed a sacrifice. Perhaps the Cannabis smoke was used by the inhalers to connect with spirits or the dead.
Maybe this wasn’t the origin at all, maybe some other people nearby were enjoying a laugh and music. At the moment we don’t know but we can start to see where it all began. It certainly would of been used by those involved to put them into altered states, I think all that would be intensified by the surroundings, I once was told by a friend how the most incredible thing he ever smoked was from a temple in Thailand in the late 70’s, it was hash with some sort of mold in it, perhaps ancient itself.
We are talking about what is still today the most medicinal plant on the planet and we honestly feel at Sacred Harvest the way we make this Plant Infusion is a unique ancient process that gives the incredible results that were likely produced so many ages ago. Hopefully we can start to discover more medicinal uses of Cannabis from the ancient world, whatever we find we do know for sure, that it is powerful regenerative stuff.
Thanks for reading, peace, forgiveness, gratitude, belief and Thrive.